The Stoneware Monkey - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

The Stoneware Monkey ebook

R. Austin Freeman



First, there are two seemingly unrelated events: the murder of a constable in pursuit of a diamond thief and the attempt to poison a potter by using arsenic. The connection lies in the presence of Dr. Oldfield, a Dr. Thorndyke’s former student, who happened to find the constable body and served as the consulting physician of the potter. Dr. Oldfield once again found a trace of murder: ashes of cremated human human body in the dustbin at the potter’s studio. The police tries to chase the supposedly real villain, but end up in vain. Facing with these puzzling events, Dr. Thorndyke has his own hypotheses. His inquiries results in the discovery of the real felon while the secret is concealed in the hideous figurine of a stoneware monkey. „The Stoneware Monkey” has everything that we’ve come to expect from a Thorndyke novel – a highly complex and creative murder, a damsel in distress, telltale fingerprints, chemical analysis, brilliant theorizing by Thorndyke, faulty thinking by everyone else, and a dramatic surprise ending.

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Liczba stron: 434

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THE profession of medicine has a good many drawbacks in the way of interrupted meals, disturbed nights and long and strenuous working hours. But it has its compensations, for a doctor’s life is seldom a dull life. Compared, for instance, with that of a civil servant or a bank official, it abounds in variety of experience and surroundings, to say nothing of the intrinsic interest of the work in its professional aspects. And then it may happen at any moment that the medical practitioner’s duties may lead him into the very heart of a drama or a tragedy or bring him into intimate contact with crime.

Not that the incident which I am about to describe was, in the first place, directly connected with my professional duties. The initial experience might have befallen anyone. But it was my medical status that enlarged and completed that experience.

It was about nine o’clock on a warm September night that I was cycling at an easy pace along a by-road towards the town, or village, of Newingstead, in which I was temporarily domiciled as the locum-tenens of a certain Dr. Wilson. I had been out on an emergency call to a small village about three miles distant and had taken my bicycle instead of the car for the sake of the exercise; and having ridden out at the speed that the occasion seemed to demand, was now making a leisurely return, enjoying the peaceful quiet of the by-way and even finding the darkness restful with a good headlight to show the way and a rear light to secure me from collisions from behind.

At a turn of the lane, a few twinkling lights seen dimly through spaces in the hedgerow told me that I was nearing my destination. A little reluctant to exchange the quiet of the countryside for the light and bustle of the town, I dismounted, and, leaning my bicycle against a gate, brought out my pipe and was just dipping into my pocket for my tobacco pouch when I heard what sounded to me like the call of a police whistle.

I let go the pouch and put away my pipe as I strained my ears to listen. The sound had come from no great distance but I had not been able exactly to locate it. The cart track from the gate, I knew, skirted a small wood, from which a footpath joined it, and the sound had seemed to come from that direction. But the wood was invisible in the darkness, though I could judge its position by a group of ricks, the nearest of which loomed vaguely out of the murk.

I had switched off the lamps of my machine and was just considering the expediency of walking up the cart track to explore, when the unmistakable shriek of a police whistle rang out, considerably nearer than the last and much shorter, and was succeeded by the sound of voices–apparently angry voices–accompanied by obscure noises as of bodies bursting through the undergrowth of the wood, from the direction of which the sounds now clearly proceeded. On this I climbed over the gate and started up the cart track at a quick pace, treading as silently as I could and keeping a bright lookout. The track led through the groups of ricks, the great shapes of which loomed up one after another, looking strangely gigantic in the obscurity, and near the last of them I passed a farm wagon and was disposed to examine it with my flashlight, but then judged it to be more prudent not to show a light. So I pushed on with the flashlight in my hand, peering intently into the darkness and listening for any further sounds.

But there were none. The silence of the countryside–now no longer restful, but awesome and sinister–was deepened rather than broken by the faint sounds that belonged to it; the half-audible “skreek” of a bat, the faint murmur of leaves and, far away, the fantastic cry of an owl.

Presently I was able to make out the wood as a vague shape of deeper darkness and then I came on the little footpath that meandered away towards it. Deciding that this was the right direction, I turned on to it and followed it–not without difficulty, for it was but a narrow track through the grass–until I found myself entering the black shadows of the wood. Here I paused for a moment to listen while I peered into the impenetrable darkness ahead. But no sounds came to my ear save the hushed whisper of the trees. Whatever movement there had been was now stilled, and as I resumed my advance toward the wood I began to ask myself uneasily what this strange and sudden stillness might portend. But I had not gone more than a score of paces and was just entering the wood when the question was answered. Quite suddenly, almost at my feet, I saw the prostrate figure of a man.

Instantly I switched on my flashlight and as its beam fell on him it told the substance of the tragic story in a single flash. He was the constable whose whistle I had heard–it was still hanging loose at the end of its chain. He was bareheaded and at the first glance I thought he was dead; but when I knelt down by his side I saw that he was still breathing, and I now noticed a small trickle of blood issuing from an invisible wound above his ear. Very carefully I sought the wound by a light touch of my finger and immediately became aware of a soft area of the scalp, which further cautious and delicate palpation showed to be a depression of the skull.

I felt his pulse–a typical brain-compression pulse–and examined his eyes, but there was no doubt as to his condition. The dent in the skull was compressing his brain and probably the compression was being increased from moment to moment by internal bleeding. The question was, what was to be done? I could do nothing for him here, but yet I could hardly leave him to go in search of help. It was a horrible dilemma; whatever could be done for him would need to be done quickly, and the sands of his life were running out while I knelt helplessly at his side.

Suddenly I bethought me of his whistle. The sound of it had brought me to the spot and it must surely bring others. Picking it up, I put it to my lips and blew a loud and prolonged blast, and, after a few moments’ pause, another and yet another. The harsh, strident screech, breaking in on the deathly stillness of the wood and setting the sleeping birds astir, seemed to strike my overstrung nerves a palpable blow. It was positive pain to me to raise that hideous din, but there was nothing else to do. I must keep it up until it should be heard and should attract someone to this remote and solitary place.

It took effect sooner than I had expected, for I was in the act of raising the whistle once more to my lips when I heard sounds from within the wood as of someone trampling through the undergrowth. I threw the beam of my flashlight in that direction but took the precaution to stand up until I should have seen who and what the newcomer might be. Almost immediately there appeared a light from the wood which flashed out and then disappeared as if a lantern were being carried among tree trunks. Then it became continuous and was evidently turned full on me as the newcomer ran out of the wood and advanced towards me. For a few moments I was quite dazzled by the glare of his light, but as he came nearer, mine lighted him up and I then saw that he was a police constable. Apparently he had just observed the figure lying at my feet, for he suddenly quickened his pace and arrived so much out of breath that, for a moment or two, he was unable to speak, but stood with the light of his lantern cast on his unconscious comrade, breathing hard and staring down at him with amazement and horror.

“God save us!” he muttered at length. “What the devil has been happening? Who blew that whistle?”

“I did,” I replied, upon which he nodded, and then, once more throwing his light on me, and casting a searching glance at me, demanded:

“And who are you, and how do you come to be here?”

I explained the position very briefly and added that it was urgently necessary that the injured man should be got to the hospital as quickly as possible.

“He isn’t dead, then?” said he. “And you say you are a doctor? Can’t you do anything for him?”

“Not here,” I answered. “He has got a deep depressed fracture of the skull. If anything can be done, it will have to be done at the hospital; and he will have to be moved very gently. We shall want an ambulance. Could you go and fetch one? My bicycle is down by the gate.”

He considered for a few moments. Apparently he was in somewhat of a dilemma, for he replied:

“I oughtn’t to go away from here with that devil probably lurking in the wood. And you oughtn’t to leave this poor chap. But there was another man coming along close behind me. He should be here any minute if he hasn’t lost his way. Perhaps I’d better go back a bit and look for him.”

He threw the beam from his lantern into the opening of the wood and was just starting to retrace his steps when there sounded faintly from that direction the voice of someone apparently hailing us:

“Is that you, Mr. Kempster?” the constable roared.

Apparently it was, though I could not make out the words of the reply, for a minute or so later a man emerged from the wood and approached us at a quick walk. But Mr. Kempster, like the constable, was a good deal the worse for his exertions, and, for a time, was able only to stand panting, with his hand to his side, while he gazed in consternation at the prostrate form on the ground.

“Can you ride a bicycle, Mr. Kempster?” the constable asked.

Mr. Kempster managed to gasp out that he could, though he wasn’t much of a rider.

“Well,” said the constable, “we want an ambulance to take this poor fellow to the hospital. Could you take the doctor’s bicycle and run along to the police station and just tell them what has happened?”

“Where is the bicycle?” asked Kempster.

“It is leaning against the gate at the bottom of the cart track,” I replied, adding, “You can have my flashlight to find your way and I will see you down the path to the place where it joins the track.”

He agreed, not unwillingly, I thought, having no great liking for the neighbourhood, so I handed him my flashlight and conducted him along the path to its junction with the cart track, when I returned to the place where the constable was kneeling by his comrade, examining him by the light of his lantern.

“I can’t make this out,” said he as I came up. “He wasn’t taken unawares. There seems to have been a considerable scrap. His truncheon’s gone. The fellow must have managed to snatch it out of his hand, but I can’t imagine how that can have happened. It would take a pretty hefty customer to get a constable’s truncheon out of his fist, especially as that’s just what he’d be on his guard against.”

“He seems to have been a powerful ruffian,” said I, “judging by the character of the injury. He must have struck a tremendous blow. The skull is stove in like an egg-shell.”

“Blighter!” muttered the constable. Then, after a pause, he asked:

“Do you think he is going to die, Doctor?”

“I am afraid his chances are not very good,” I replied, “and the longer we have to wait for that ambulance, the worse they will be.”

“Well,” he rejoined, “if Mr. Kempster hustles along, we shan’t have very long to wait. They won’t waste any time at the station.”

He stood up and swept the beam of his lantern around, first towards the wood and then in the direction of the ricks. Suddenly he uttered an indignant snort and exclaimed, angrily:

“Well, I’m damned! Here’s Mr. Kempster coming back.” He kept the light of his lantern on the approaching figure, and as it came within range he roared out: “What’s the matter, sir? We thought you’d be half way there.”

Mr. Kempster hurried up, breathing hard and looking decidedly resentful of the constable’s tone.

“There is no bicycle there,” he said, sulkily. “Somebody must have made off with it. I searched all about there but there was not a sign of it.”

The constable cursed as a well trained constable ought not to curse.

“But that’s put the lid on it,” he concluded. “This murderous devil must have seen you come up, Doctor, and as soon as you were out of sight, he must have just got on your machine and cleared out. I suppose you had a headlight.”

“I had both head and rear light,” I replied, “but I switched them both off before I started up the cart track. But, of course, if he was anywhere near–hiding behind one of those ricks, for instance–he would have seen my lights when I came up to the gate.”

“Yes,” the constable agreed, gloomily, “it was a bit of luck for him. And now he’s got clean away; got away for good and all unless he has left some sort of traces.”

Mr. Kempster uttered a groan. “If he has slipped through your fingers,” he exclaimed, indignantly, “there’s about ten thousand pounds’ worth of my property gone with him. Do you realize that?”

“I do, now you’ve told me,” replied the constable, adding unsympathetically, “and it’s bad luck for you; but still, you know, you are better off than my poor mate here who was trying to get it back for you. But we mustn’t stop here talking. If the man has gone, there is no use in my staying here. I’ll just run back the way I came and report at the station. You may as well wait here with the doctor until I come back with the ambulance.”

But Mr Kempster had had enough of the adventure.

“There is no use in my waking here,” said he, handing me my flashlight. “I’ll walk back through the wood with you and then get along home and see exactly what that scoundrel has taken.”

The constable made no secret of his disapproval of this course, but he did not actually put it into words. With a brief farewell to me, he turned the light of his lantern on the entrance to the wood and set off at a pace that kept his companion at a brisk trot. And as the light faded among the trees and the sound of their footsteps died away in the distance, I found myself once more alone with my patient, encompassed by the darkness and wrapped in a silence which was broken only by an occasional soft moan from the unconscious man.

It seemed to me that hours elapsed after the departure of the constable; hours of weary expectation and anxiety. I possessed myself of my patient’s lantern and by its light examined him from time to time. Naturally, there was no improvement; indeed, each time that I felt his pulse it was with a faint surprise to find it still beating. I knew that, actually, his condition must be getting worse with every minute that passed, and it became more and more doubtful whether he would reach the hospital alive.

Then my thoughts strayed towards my bicycle and the unknown robber. We had taken it for granted that the latter had escaped on the machine, and in all probability he had. Yet it was possible that the cycle might have been stolen by some tramp or casual wayfarer and that the robber might be still lurking in the neighbourhood. However, that possibility did not disturb me, since he could have no object in attacking me. I was more concerned about the loss of my bicycle.

From the robber, my reflections drifted to the robbed. Who and what was Mr. Kempster? And what sort of property was it that the thief had made off with? There are not many things worth ten thousand pounds which can be carried away in the pocket. Probably the booty consisted of something in the nature of jewelry. But I was not much interested. The value of property, and especially of such trivial property as jewelry, counts for little compared with that of a human life. My momentarily wandering attention quickly came back to the man lying motionless at my feet, whose life hung so unsteadily in the balance.

At last my seemingly interminable vigil came to an end. From the road below came the distinctive clang of an ambulance bell, and lights winked over the unseen hedgerow. Then the glare from a pair of powerful headlamps came across the field, throwing up the ricks in sharp silhouette, and telling me that the ambulance was passing in through the gate. I watched the lights growing brighter from moment to moment; saw them vanish behind the ricks and presently emerge as the vehicle advanced up the cart track and at length turned on to the footpath.

It drew up eventually within a few paces of the spot where the injured man was lying, and immediately there descended from it a number of men, including a police inspector and the constable who had gone with Kempster. The former greeted me civilly, and, looking down on his subordinate with deep concern, asked me a few questions while a couple of uniformed men brought out a stretcher and set it down by the patient. I helped them to lift him on to the stretcher and to convey the latter to its place in the ambulance. Then I got in, myself, and, while the vehicle was being turned round, the inspector came to take a last look at the patient.

“I am not coming back with you. Doctor,” said he. “I have got a squad of men with some powerful lights to search the wood.”

“But,” said I, “the man has almost certainly gone off on my bicycle.”

“I know,” said he. “But we are not looking for him. It’s this poor fellow’s truncheon that I want. If the thief managed to snatch it away from him, there are pretty certain to be finger-prints on it. At any rate, I hope so, for it’s our only chance of identifying the man.”

With this, as the ambulance was now ready to start, he turned away; and as we moved off towards the cart track, I saw him, with the constable and three plain-clothes men advancing towards the wood which, by the combined effects of all their lights, was illuminated almost to the brightness of daylight.

Once out on the road, the smoothly-running ambulance made short work of the distance to the hospital. But yet the journey had not been short enough. For when the stretcher had been borne into the casualty room and placed on the table, the first anxious glance showed that the feebly-flickering light had gone out. In vain the visiting surgeon–who had been summoned by telephone–felt the pulse and listened to the heart. Poor Constable Murray–such, I learned, was his name–had taken his last turn of duty.

“A bad business,” said the surgeon, putting away his stethoscope and passing his fingers lightly over the depression in the dead man’s skull. “But I doubt whether we could have done much for him even if he had come in alive. It was a devil of a blow. The man was a fool to hit so hard, for now he’ll have to face a charge of wilful murder–that is, if they catch him. I hope they will.”

“I hope so, too,” said I, “but I doubt whether they will. He seems to have found my bicycle and gone off on it, and I gather that nobody saw him near enough to recognize him.”

“H’m,” grunted the surgeon, “that’s unfortunate; and bad luck for you, too, though I expect you will get your cycle back. Meanwhile, can I give you a lift in my car?”

I accepted the offer gladly, and, after a last look at the dead constable, we went out together to return to our respective homes.

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